Pisaro, performers investigate sonic extremes at NEC
In his 1998 essay “Hit or Miss,” Michael Pisaro — composer, performer, member of the Wandelweiser new-music collective, a visiting professor at Harvard this term, the focus of a concert at New England Conservatory’s Williams Hall on Tuesday (as well as another concert at Harvard on Thursday) — explained his idea of experimental music in baseball terms. The composer, like a catcher, puts down a signal; the performers deliver the pitch; the listener, as batter, instinctively reacts. It’s a deft summation of the aesthetic of the Wandelweiser composers, a group of international confederates founded in 1992: the open approach to scoring and notation, the recognition and enhancement of the performer’s agency, the emphasis on pure musical experience over implied musical narrative. But it also gets at the music’s effect, reducing the whole field to a single, heightened, magnified exchange.
A common thread among Wandelweiser composers is an avoidance of traditional musical trajectories and goals, instead mining richness and unpredictability from basic musical materials: sound and silence. As if to establish a comparative baseline, Tuesday’s concert opened with “System 518,” an electronic piece by NEC faculty members Katarina Miljkovic and John Mallia, softly percussive pinging and waves of distorted resonance arranged into reasonably familiar arcs.
Pisaro’s “Closed Categories in Cartesian Worlds” was both far more and far less schematic. Percussionist Greg Stuart bowed crotales into clear, unbounded ringing, while Pisaro and Joe Panzner, at laptops, encased the sound in computer-generated sine waves, shifting just in and out of unison with Stuart and each other. It was a half-hour of high, cicada-like keening, both piercing and enveloping, the intersecting waves producing effects that varied with time, with the echo of the hall, with a tilt of the listener’s head.
Pisaro’s equally expansive, equally hermetic “White Metal” exchanged pure sound for pure noise, Panzner and Stuart electronically engendering static and feedback, often quite loud, often densely layered, arranged into slowly shifting blocks of contrast, interspersed with lengthy (and precisely measured) stretches of silence.
It’s extreme music, and purposefully so. So much music trades on allusion and reference, historical categories or expressive conventions; this went in the opposite direction, its persistent immediacy of sound saturating the conceptual frame, forestalling any extra-musical interpretation. The play’s outcome might have remained open to question, but it was an impressively concentrated, in-depth examination of the point of contact between sonic ball and perceptive bat.